As Payson grows from a struggling tourist town of 15,000 to a diverse college town of 40,000, much of the new development will concentrate along the highway, around the proposed campus, along Main Street and in industrial and high-density residential areas around the Payson Airport.
At least, that’s the blueprint for the future outlined in the proposed once-a-decade overhaul of the town’s General Plan.
The consultants who prepared the revision spent months gathering suggestions from citizens, then wrote an ambitious wish list for the future, politely sidestepping the still stubborn stumbling blocks of the past.
The plan calls for the town to finally escape its highway, strip-commercial prison, which has largely defined Payson until now. New development lured to the area as the town doubles, then redoubles in population will create walkable clusters of mixed residential and commercial.
The blueprint envisions smaller more diverse homes. It envisions highway frontage graced with trees, sidewalks and benches that hide parking and buffer shops and coffee-sipping shoppers from the rush of traffic. It aims for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, a finally revitalized Main Street, a thriving university campus area, apartments and year-round industries built on hundreds of acres of empty land near the Payson Airport.
Of course, Payson has been struggling to realize many of these glittering urban dreams for years — especially when it comes to the titanic struggle to turn the mile-long straggle of shops on Main Street into a meandering shoppers’ refuge to rival the the core shopping areas of small tourist towns like Jerome or Bisbee or larger regional centers like Prescott and Flagstaff. At build-out, Payson would have as many people as Prescott does now — but still one-third less than Flagstaff has now.
Years of effort to bolster Main Street succeeded in attracting some $14 million in private investment and transforming the area from one of the highest-crime areas in town to one of the safest. But despite that singular success, the clusters of shops remain scattered and ambitious plans and proposed developments have faltered.
Likewise, ambitious plans to put a roof over the Payson Event Center have repeatedly floundered. The town hoped moving the rodeo grounds from the shaded Rumsey Park to the spacious but sun-drenched site at the south entrance to town would draw an array of events and trade shows and spin-off development. Five years ago, the town announced with fanfare a plan to build a major hotel overlooking the Event Center, but that plan fell victim to the recession.
More recently, town officials hoped to take advantage of federal incentives to cover the Event Center with solar cells as part of the university campus plan. That fell through when the state and federal incentives expired.
Still, the General Plan revision anticipates major new projects in the four growth areas that will mingle commercial and residential and provide a setting for new industries providing year-round jobs.
The plan stresses the need to diversify the town’s housing stock, which now includes 8,417 dwelling units. Of those, 90 percent are single-family homes — including 5,668 houses and 1,738 mobile homes. Payson continues to struggle with a shortage of affordable housing — defined as the mismatch between the average wage and the average house price.
Multi-family units like condos and apartments constitute only 10 percent of the town’s housing stock, which makes Payson a tough place for renters.
With plans to build a university and various spin-off businesses and industries and the Arizona housing market on the mend, planners hope for a turn in the Payson real estate market as well.
That could soon confront town planners with the need to find some way to achieve the glittering promise of the General Plan’s effort to lure shoppers off the buzzing highway. Strategies include things like landscaping the now mostly barren highway frontage, moving storefronts closer to the street by shifting the parking lots to the back, building up to four stories to create facades and shaded places to sit and chat and eat.
Currently, about 55 percent of the town’s 20-square-mile area is zoned for residential, most of it low and medium density. Office zoning accounts for 1 percent, industrial zoning 4 percent and commercial zoning 3 percent. The commercial development generates most of the property taxes, which provides about two-thirds of the town’s budget.
The remaining categories include 21 percent devoted to open space — mostly drainage areas and hillsides, the 3 percent included in the Tonto Apache Reservation and the 3 percent of “civic” space — including town buildings and parks.
The development that flows into the four designated “growth areas” will largely determine whether Payson can generate the sales tax revenue it needs to pay for public services without losing its treasured “small town” feel.
Growth areas – Main Street
Residents expressed “overwhelming” support for the continued redevelopment of Main Street, in hopes of creating a healthy, pedestrian and tourist-oriented commercial area between the Beeline Highway and Green Valley Park, the consultants reported.
“Large scale retail development along Beeline Highway and State Highway 260, hurt the bypassed Main Street corridor,” they wrote, “increasingly Main Street serves as a pass-through rather than the destination and community center of a traditional ‘Main Street.’”
But the plan contained few new ideas on how to reverse the trend, with struggling shops too widely separated for casual strolling. The street varies in width from 61 to 125 feet, with fragmented sidewalks and little landscaping. The plan calls for filling in the gaps in the storefronts and developing consistent widths, features to slow traffic and the development of outdoor café seating. However, the plan included no discussion of how the town might pay for such improvements.
The area around the Payson Airport has some of the largest undeveloped tracts of land and the most industrial and multi-family zoning in Payson, thanks to the annexation several years ago of some 200 acres private owners acquired from the Forest Service in a land swap that took 20 years to arrange.
The area has figured prominently in discussions between town officials and companies they’ve tried to lure to the region in the past several years. That included a Chinese consortium that wants to build a solar cell chip assembly plant here in connection with a university campus. In addition, town officials have opened discussions with several gun and ammunition manufacturers they hope will join the existing ammunition making plant now operating near the airport.
State Route 260
This stretch of highway frontage will likely be transformed by the construction of the proposed university campus on 253 acres of land south of the highway. The Rim Country Educational Alliance also has the option to buy about 100 acres between GCC and Tyler Parkway, where it hopes to build a research park and other facilities. The university plan calls for a 500-room conference hotel on a hill overlooking the campus.
Instead of building a strip mall string of stores looking toward the highway across barren parking lots, the plan calls for building clusters with landscaping, sidewalks, bike paths — and parking lots tucked in around back.
“The goal will be to define a district anchored by vibrant retail and commercial framing the core intersection and extending along both roadways. Gila Community College and any future higher education institutions will create demand for a young “hip” district focused on the public space. Small, loft-style apartments will accommodate students and increase market feasibility.”
Beeline Highway corridor
The Beeline remains the “spine” of Payson, the consultants concluded, with average traffic flows of 2,000 to 3,000 cars a day — soaring to 20,000 on busy weekends.
The General Plan should encourage commercial infill all along the highway, with efforts to shorten setbacks and provide sidewalks, tree canopies and features that buffer shoppers and pedestrians from the intimidating rush of the highway.
Payson business owners trying to survive along that frontage have struggled for years, trying desperately to get some of the 20,000 drivers to slow down and turn off the highway.
The General Plan discussion in the report focused on finding ways to redevelop chunks of highway footage, in hopes a new approach could make drivers slow down and park.
“Beeline Highway is the commercial lifeblood of Payson,” the report concluded. “It offers the greatest visibility for retail, dining and commercial activity. However, development over the past decades has resulted in inconsistent facades and setbacks, excessive curb cuts, loss of tree canopy, and lack of gateways defining the Beeline Highway as part of the community.
“Designating areas for mixed-use development/redevelopment along Beeline Highway helps to define the corridor as a destination.”